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Nuclear Modernization Plans Are Unnecessarily Costly and Risky

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  • The US is pursuing the modernization of all three legs of the nuclear triad, at an estimated cost of $1.7 trillion over 30 years.
  • Simultaneous modernization exceeds what’s needed for an effective nuclear deterrent and is an unnecessarily costly and risky way to achieve our deterrence requirements.
  • Bill Perry is a former US secretary of defense. Jerry Brown is a former governor. John Garamendi is the US Representative for California’s 3rd Congressional District.
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The world is witnessing a new, dangerous nuclear arms race. Tensions are rising between the Great Powers. As the US, Russia, and China rush to modernize their nuclear arsenals, the trip wire is becoming more taut by the day.

Observation and communication satellites and systems are increasingly vulnerable to attacks. All three countries are fielding stealth and hypersonic nuclear delivery systems designed to evade detection. The risks of a false alarm or a political miscalculation has always haunted the nuclear landscape, and they do even more today.

Last week, legislation was introduced in the US House of Representatives to address the misguided nuclear modernization strategy the US is currently employing and chart a safer, more cost-effective course for our modernization efforts — one that is predicated on deterrence rather than dominance.

As long as nuclear weapons exist, we must have a safe, secure, and effective nuclear deterrent. However, simultaneous modernization efforts across all three legs of the nuclear triad exceed that scope and are an unnecessarily costly and risky way to achieve our deterrence requirements.

The current US nuclear modernization strategy includes the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD), the B-21 bomber, the Columbia-class submarine, the Long-Range Standoff (LRSO) air-launched cruise missile, the sea launched nuclear cruise missile, and new nuclear warheads.

The costs of these projects are extraordinary: a 2017 Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report estimated that the 30-year cost of nuclear weapons spending would be $1.2 trillion ($1.7 trillion adjusted for inflation).

As the Government Accountability Office recently noted, the current plan to modernize every part of the US nuclear arsenal simultaneously is a recipe for schedule delays and cost overruns.

Columbia class ballistic missile submarine US Navy

A photo illustration of the future USS Columbia.

US Navy/Petty Officer 1st Class Armando Gonzales


The ICBM leg of the triad deserves special attention. The total price tag to procure the GBSD is projected to be at least $95 billion, and up to $264 billion when accounting for total life-cycle costs. A pause in the GBSD will help defray short-term costs for the Air Force and will also defer a long-term expenditure.

Additionally, the W87-1, the warhead that is being designed for the GBSD, will cost at least $12 billion to build — and is not part of the estimated GBSD procurement cost of $95 billion. To build new warhead cores for the W87-1, the National Nuclear Security Agency (NNSA) is expanding plutonium pit production, which will cost at least another $9 billion through the late 2020s according to the Congressional Budget Office.

We do not need a new ICBM to provide a robust deterrent. The existing Minuteman III (MMIII) ICBM — which the GBSD is scheduled to replace — can serve until 2040 with one more life extension.

Lt. Gen. Richard M. Clark, then-Air Force deputy chief of staff for Strategic Deterrence and Nuclear Integration, noted in testimony before the House Armed Services Committee that we have ”one more opportunity” to conduct life extension on the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile, indicating the technical feasibility of extending the Minuteman III missile.

Other independent experts have confirmed the feasibility of a MMIII life extension. In fact, the Air Force intends to do just that. It will upgrade and extend the life of existing MMIII missiles while it is replacing others with the GBSD. The swap out plan is an admission that the life extension is possible and has already been factored into the existing plan.

Maintaining and upgrading the current Minuteman III missile is not only technically possible — it is also cost-effective. According to a 2017 CBO report, it would cost $37 billion less to maintain the MMIII than developing and deploying the GBSD through 2036.

It’s clear that replacing the Minuteman III for the GBSD is a wasteful and costly undertaking that is not in our national security interest. That’s why we are supporting the “Investing in Commonsense Ballistic Missiles (ICBM) Act of 2021,” which was introduced in the US House of Representatives last week by Congressman Garamendi.

B-52H bomber releases AGM-86B air-launched cruise missile during nuclear test

A B-52H drops an unarmed AGM-86B air-launched cruise missile during a Nuclear Weapons System Evaluation Program sortie, September 22, 2014.

US Air Force/Staff Sgt. Roidan Carlson


This bill will simply pause the development of the GBSD, and the associated W87-1 nuclear warhead, and life extend the Minuteman III until 2040 — something that is both technically feasible and more cost-efficient. This extension provides time for arms control negotiations and additional debate on the utility of a ground-based system, which may make this program unnecessary.

This legislation will help deescalate the modern nuclear arms race and prevent the unnecessary spending of billions of taxpayer dollars. That’s why nine members of Congress joined Garamendi’s “ICBM Act” as original cosponsors, and it’s why 12 policy experts and arms control associations have joined us in endorsing the legislation.

The “ICBM Act” will strengthen our national security and save billions of tax-payer dollars by:

  • Prohibiting the use of funds for the GBSD program and W87-1 warhead modification program for fiscal years 2022 through 2031;
  • Extending the service life of the Minuteman III missiles until at least 2040, and requiring use of nondestructive testing methods and technologies similar to those used by the Navy for Trident II D5 SLBMs; and
  • Transferring back to the Air Force all unobligated funds for the GBSD program, and transferring unobligated funds for the W87-1 warhead modification program from the National Nuclear Security Administration to the Treasury.

As a former US secretary of defense, governor of California, and current chair of the Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness, we have an intimate understanding of this issue and the urgency with which we must address it.

We have visited the launch sites. We have met the young Air Force captains who sit in the buried bunker ready to turn the launch keys for atomic bombs capable of destroying a city three times the size of Hiroshima. It sobers the mind and underscores the need to chart a new course for our modernization strategy before we cross a line from which we cannot return.

Bill Perry is the former US secretary of defense who served under President Bill Clinton. Jerry Brown is the former governor of California and is currently the executive chair of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. John Garamendi is the US Representative for California’s 3rd Congressional District and chair of the Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness.

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